The Way We Work
January 3, 2013 by Laura LeBleu

My ears were burning. I was late for a deadline, way in the weeds, and people were starting to talk trash. This blog post might be my Waterloo, but come hell or high water, I was going to get ‘er done!

So, how much of that made sense? If you aren’t a native English speaker, probably not much. In fact, one might think I was in an overgrown Belgian garden, my head on fire, only to be doused by a possibly demonic flood while people around me discussed garbage.

Welcome to the wild world of English idioms! Where nothing is as it seems and phrases like “you’re pulling my leg” have nothing to do with someone truly tugging on your lower limb.

As oDesk’s official word wrangler, this is a subject I spend a lot of time pondering. (Like, waaaayyyy too much time.) So I thought I’d share a few thoughts on how both sides of the communication equation can navigate a notoriously wacky language.

When in doubt, KISS

There are a few ways you could read the title above: When in doubt, 1) pucker up and smooch, 2) listen to an awesome 70s glam rock band, or 3) Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I meant the last one. (And, no, I don’t think you’re stupid. It’s just part of the saying.) So I’ve basically started off by ignoring my own first rule, which is to keep things simple.

If you’re learning English, spend some time on the Voice of America website. They have a truly wonderful section with shows in “Special English”—a slowed down, easy-to-understand pace that covers interesting topics in a way that’s super accessible to new English speakers.

If you’re on the other end of the equation (as I often am) attempting to communicate across language lines, always go for the easy word. Forget trying to impress and focus on the essential meaning of what you’re trying to say. See? Simple.

Say what you mean

According to Wikipedia, the English language contains about 25,000 idioms. And I love every one of them…which is why I’m constantly reminding myself to avoid them when I write for my oDesk audience.

Take a look again at the opening paragraph of this blog. With the exception of one statement (“I was late for a deadline”), pretty much all of it is written as idiom and metaphor. Here’s how I would change the language if I were writing for an international audience:

I was late for a deadline to write this blog post, and people were starting to talk. But I was going to get it done, no matter what!

It misses the playfulness of the original, but that’s okay because there is a 99% chance that my readers would have been too confused to pick up on any nuance anyway.

If you are new to the language and you run into a saying that just doesn’t make any sense, refer to one of many websites out there like Using English, which has a special section for idioms and figures of speech.

Learn from a pro

While I may write for an international audience, Paul Gomez is the real deal when it comes to teaching people not just how to speak English, but how to truly communicate.

As founder of American Spirit, a conversational English school based in Novi Sad, Serbia, he and his students find the formulas in basic sentences, then write and speak purposefully and repeatedly using those formulas. For example:

Subject + Verb + Article (if necessary) + Adjective + Noun + Preposition + Article (if necessary) + Noun

I rode a white horse in the parade. (with articles)

She is cooking dinner for us. (without articles)

He has his students listen to public speakers, often using lectures from TED as a resource. For reading, Paul recommends Raymond Carver for his use of everyday vocabulary and elementary structure.

And, remember, whatever side of the communication equation you may be on, a little patience and a sense of humor will go a long way.

Do you have a funny communication (or lack thereof) story to share? Or a trick to help make navigating the language a little easier? Enquiring minds want to know, so take a minute to post your personal English-language experience in the comments section below.

Laura LeBleu

Word Wrangler

Laura LeBleu is oDesk's official word wrangler, bringing with her more than a decade of professional copywriting experience. She feels a strong kinship with both clients and contractors, having been on both sides of the coin as a longtime freelancer and owner of Cheeky Monkey Copywriting. She lists triathlons, Scrabble, and the em dash among her life's hobbies and minor obsessions.